Bear Swamp Orchard & Cidery

Certified Organic Hard Ciders and Apples

Around the farm

A little update on our animal companions. The sheep are enjoying eating fresh grass after a winter of hay. Our family group - mama Blondie and her daughter Fifi and son Gimble are going to be ranging around the property, with their range house and moveable electronet fencing. Gimble gets out of the 5-wire fence we have around the main pasture, so he can’t be in there, but the electronet keeps him safe. The llama Fern and the remaining sheep will stay in the main pasture, as the llama needs access to the barn to get out of the sun. We block off portions of the pasture and move them around in that space. Our year-old Red Star chickens are laying up a storm, as are many of our older hens. Even the 5-year old silver-spangled Hamburgs are laying still. They are really amazing birds, too bad they are so good at escaping from fences. We bought chicks from McMurray’s hatchery, Red Stars once again. Chickens must be a booming industry right now, by the time I ordered chickens at the end of March, Red Stars were the only breed we could get early enough to start laying this fall, and we had to order them separately from the meat birds. We ended up splitting orders with other people so we shouldn’t be too overrun with chickens. Some of our older birds will be living around our trap trees this year, hopefully eating lots of pests and reducing pest damage for future years.

Our gardens are pretty much ready for planting, which will happen over the next few weeks. The crops I have already planted - wheat, lettuce, carrots, beets, chard, peas and a few potatoes for summer eating - are all coming up. Unfortunately we have some herbivorous visitor, probably a rabbit, that is chomping chard and pea plants as fast as they put out leaves. Time to pull out some of the hardware-cloth cages we put around the trees in the orchard and set them over my plants.


As we started thinning apples, we realized that plum curculio were still active so we had to spray clay once more at the end of June. We have never had to spray clay after the 15th of June, but it has been so rainy and cool I guess the little buggers have been delayed. Thinning with fresh clay on the trees is difficult and unpleasant, as the clay makes the apples hard to see, and of course it rubs off on you as you move through the tree. So, we have taken a short break from thinning. It rained a bit last night, so I will start thinning once again over the next few days. The crop on the Freedoms is certainly thin, but the Libertys look ok (not much hand thinning to do though Happy, and the Northern Spys look great. Interestingly, the scab-immune varieties seem more attractive to plum curculio - some of the Freedoms and Libertys are really covered with PC-scars and need to be thinned off, but the older varieties - Northern Spys, Golden Delicious - have much less PC damage. I guess there is always a tradeoff; if an apple was immune to scab and unattractive to all insect pests, it would probably taste terrible and have no nutrients.
Soon we will be hanging traps to monitor apple maggot flies. This is mostly to give us an idea of the pressure in the orchard, since we don’t have any way to deal with AMF at this point in the season. We can only hope our orchard sanitation last year was good enough that we don’t have to deal with this pest. Still, it’s satisfying to see those little flies stuck to the traps - each one is one fewer to damage the apples.
Our little ram lamb Gimble is growing incredibly fast. He is fat, fat, fat, despite not having started eating anything yet. His little horns are growing, and we have had to work on keeping him from butting us - not a good habit for him to develop. We are making every effort to keep him tame, unlike the rest of our sheep, so he enjoys lots of petting and getting picked up. We will try him on a halter soon, he is almost big enough for one to stay on I think. I have never seen a Shetland sheep who is well halter trained, even the ones people show tend to lay on their backs when they are led on a halter. Worth a try though.

New lamb

We welcomed our newest farm member on June 3rd when Blondie gave birth to her son Gimble with Steve & Jen in attendance (not that she needed us!). He is perky, friendly and inquisitive, and currently looks like an animated stuffed animal he is so cute.

Orchard animals

Just a quick note to mention the phenomenal number of hawks in the orchard recently! Various Accipiters, including goshawks and sharp shinned hawks, red tailed hawks, and a female kestrel twice. Let's hope they get lots of voles - and no chickens. The big hawks are somewhat worrying, since we mowed the chicken yard so they no longer have tall weeds for cover, and a hawk did go after the chickens one morning. No one lost yet, though. The chickens put up a huge ruckus for about 1/2 an hour after that, with everyone crouched in corners or inside one of their shelters. Maybe they learned?... OK, maybe not - they are chickens after all.

orchard inhabitants

Once again, we are spending regular time throughout the orchard as we pick up drops to control next year's pests, and encountering the animals that live there. Some deer are helping to pick up drops near the top of the orchard, and there is someone - perhaps a porcupine? that leaves the core and pieces of apple spread around when they eat the apples. Slugs, ants, and other invertebrates can eat an amazing volume of apple for such tiny creatures. And perhaps feasting on some of those animals, I saw a Northern water snake under one of the trees. I hope it eats voles too! Come winter time, voles can strip the bark off a tree trunk or branches that are under snow, killing a tree in one winter, so anyone who eats voles is welcome. Most birds have finished with their nests for the season, so we no longer disturb irate parents when poking around in the trees.

Finished thinning, bird nests, AMF traps

Fine weather this holiday weekend allowed us to finish thinning apples. Here are some of the wonderful things we saw while thinning...

chipping sparrow chicks

kingbird eggs; notice they are using wool from our sheep in the nest!

We also put out traps for apple maggot fly - these are red and yellow traps (the AMF favorite colors!) covered with sticky goo that the pest sticks to, with lure that smells like super ripe apples to help attract these flies before they lay eggs on our apples. This is the first year we have used lure; so far, the traps with lure are the only ones to have caught flies. Let's hope they do a good job Happy

Thinning and animal update

Given the current downpour, I have time to write an update. We have been fitting apple thinning in between rain storms, and have (almost) finished the Libertys and Cortlands, as well as our early varieties. The ever-reliable Libertys are covered with fruit; we thinned at least half a bushel of tiny apples off each tree. Given the wet, cold weather this year, the plum curculio weevils were active for a longer period than usual - they started damaging apples at their normal time, but were still active while we were thinning. It has also been a challenge keeping clay on the trees to fend them off, but the apples we left on the trees look good. We still have the Freedom variety to thin, and the old-fashioned standard trees, most of which are fruiting very lightly this year for various reasons. There is some scab on the vulnerable varieties, but nothing like last year. The down side to using less-harmful controls is that we can't eradicate scab, we just try to keep it down to a dull roar. The next break in the rain we will put up our sticky traps for apple maggot fly, which will start to enter the orchard very soon. We use lures that smell like ripe apples and traps that these flies are attracted to to target this control measure specifically to this pest.

On the animal front, the killdeer hatched last night - the chicks are tiny tiny duplicates of their parents, running around my garden and the driveway. Last year I saw the family occasionally for the rest of the summer in the same area that they hatched; I look forward to keeping an eye on this brood as well. And now I can weed my garden! If it ever quits raining, that is. As for our little lamb, Fifi has developed amazingly in the week she has been alive. Her four front teeth all came in at five days old, and she has been practicing running, jumping, leaping, so she is now as fast as the adults. She has started checking things out with her mouth, so when we pick her up she now will gently taste our skin in addition to sniffing us. She won't eat anything for some time yet, but will be playing with the idea. We try to pick her up every day at least, so she remains unafraid of us and will learn to enjoy eating from our hands, being petted, etc. Of our 5 adult sheep, I think only one got this kind of attention as a lamb, since one asks for petting and will eat out of our hands, while the others run from us like wild animals. Taming adult sheep is a much bigger challenge than taming a baby.

Happy birthday little lamb!

One of the sheep we got this spring came with a surprise - a two-for-one special! Our ewe Blondie seemed fatter than the other sheep, and lo and behold there was a reason for that. Blondie's daughter little Fifi (named after the chimp, not the poodle Happy ) was born this morning with no help from us, and mama and baby are doing very well. Blondie did "bag up" (develop udders) a few weeks ago so we had warning that this was coming, but since we had no idea of the conception date, we've been on pins and needles for those few weeks.

Good job Blondie, and welcome Fifi!

Mama Cucu

Mama Cucu, our hamburg hen who raised two broods of babies last year, has done it again. We knew she was laying eggs under Steve's parents' deck, but didn't realize she was brooding eggs already until yesterday, when she came out with two tiny chicks. She stayed under the deck with them until this morning, when I looked out the window to see her scraping the mulch away from my tomatoes in the kitchen garden. I then tried to herd them toward the chicken yard, but had to resort to picking up the chicks, and then RUNNING from irate mama until I got near the coop. I put them down outside the yard - mama needs to orchestrate introducing her chicks to the other chickens, which I think she will do if only to get to the food inside the coop. I did put down a chick waterer, which mama hen promptly started showing to her chicks (she is a very good mama!).

fyi, cucu is Swahili for chicken - an incredibly apt name for them at times! And Mama is the form of address for mothers in Tanzania - like Mrs.

We also have a killdeer brooding four perfect eggs in my big garden, which makes weeding exceptionally difficult. Killdeer (a bird related to plovers; think shorebirds) are tireless in their egg defense displays, which include ear-piercing calls and constant "broken wing" displays, where a parent pretends to be injured in order to draw you away from the eggs. The killdeer pair successfully brooded four chicks in my potatoes last year - this year it's the carrots.

Rainy day reflection

A good rain yesterday and today should allow the remaining scab spores to release while there is still sulfur on the trees. With luck, we are past the point of worrying about scab for this season. The rain also washed all the clay off the trees, leaving them susceptible to insect damage until we can spray clay once again. Fortunately, it's awfully cold out there, so the insects should be pretty slow right now.

The orchard is a favored spot for birds, many of which are building nests right now. An organically managed orchard is a buggy place, since we tolerate insects, even apple-damaging ones, unless they cause significant damage to the crop. Some birds eat bugs all the time, while many others rely on insects to feed their babies even if they eat mostly fruit or seeds as adults. We have nesting pairs of robins, Baltimore orioles, tree swallows, kingbirds, indigo buntings, cedar waxwings, a half-dozen warbler species, and an array of other birds helping to keep the insect populations under control in our orchard.
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